In many Alabama cases, community service is seen as a light sentence or a reprieve from costly fines or jail time. When people cannot afford to pay fines, community service sentences present an alternative that can prevent them from racking up considerable debt. However, one study by UCLA’s Labor Center and School of Law indicates that community service can have some of the same detrimental effects on low-income communities and communities of color as other types of criminal sentences. In particular, some of the problems associated with community service are very similar to those caused by expensive court fines.
The study examined 5,000 people who were ordered to perform community service as part of their felony or misdemeanor sentencing from 2013 to 2014. They were given community service sentences in lieu of fines, and the performance of these labor hours was considered to work off the fines. During the period studied, people in Los Angeles County were ordered to perform 8 million hours of service, and government agencies received 3 million hours of labor during that time. Just the hours of labor performed took the equivalent of 1,800 paid jobs, further entrenching unemployment and relying on criminal sentencing to perform important functions of these agencies rather than hiring sufficient employees.
In addition, community service sentences require people to perform large amounts of unpaid, full-time labor. This can prevent people from going to paid jobs, particularly significant for people living in poverty. The study noted that many people sentenced to community service were most vulnerable to unemployment and could ill afford to spend weeks working for free.
When people are convicted on criminal charges, they can face long-term consequences that interfere with employment, education and housing. People facing allegations may work with a defense attorney to challenge police narratives and aim to avoid a conviction.